Hospital looks to continue tax, asks voters for 20 years

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published July 25, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated July 24, 2013 at 3:02 p.m.
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Hannah Burney

A broken sign can be seen on the front of Hot Spring County Medical Center. Malvern residents will vote Aug. 13 on whether to continue a half-cent sales tax that is used to maintain and equip the hospital.

“I don’t want to think about what will happen if the tax is defeated,” said Shelia Williams, CEO of Hot Spring County Medical Center. “When the tax was first approved, it received 89 percent of the vote, and the community understands this is an investment in health care. They understand enough to go to the polls and do the right thing.”

Early voting will begin Aug. 6 on a proposal to extend for the next 20 years a half-cent sales tax that provides funds to support the county’s hospital. The tax was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2008, but that was before the national economy slumped, before the passage of the national Affordable Care Act and before anti-tax movements grew more powerful.

Hot Spring County Medical Center is owned by the county and operated by a not-for-profit company, headed by Williams. The tax revenue is used to maintain, repair and renovate the county’s medical building and to purchase new equipment. According to information provided by the medical center, spending the funds requires approval from the Hot Spring County Quorum Court.

Williams said the extension of the tax is “essential” to the financial stability of the hospital.

“Almost half of the tax money goes to pay the utilities,” Williams said. “The tax brings in $70,000 to $80,000 a month; that is about one day of the hospital’s operating expenses.”

In recent years, the county funds have allowed the hospital to purchase digital scopes for endoscopic procedures, as well as digital mammography equipment, along with a mobile X-ray machine.

Williams visited the mammography room on the hospital’s second floor. She talked with Ginger Tabor, director of radiology at the hospital, who said the new digital machine takes clearer pictures, allowing for earlier detection of breast cancer. The more detailed images have also prevented many false-positive reports that often lead to further examination.

“The money has allowed us to put on a new roof for the hospital and remodel and to replace some old plumbing,” Williams said.

Supporters of the continuation of the tax include the business community in Malvern and in other communities in Hot Spring County, said Nikki Launius, executive director of the Malvern/Hot Spring County Chamber of Commerce.

“We have to have the hospital,” she said. “It is required by the business community. I am afraid that the hospital would close if the tax is defeated; there is no Plan B.”

Launius called support of the tax extension a “no-brainer” that won a vote of support from the Malvern/Hot Spring County Economic Development

Corp.

“The community supports the hospital,” she said.

Williams said a local Rotary club had also expressed support for the tax extension.

While it is a separate issue from the tax extension that will be decided at the ballot box, the issue is key to a plan to have the management and operation of the county’s hospital taken over by Baptist Health, a Little Rock-based health care system that now operates seven hospitals in Arkansas, as well as physician clinics, therapy centers, counseling centers and other facilities across the state.

“We have been talking to Baptist Health for around a year and a half,” Williams said. “To come here, they would expect the county to continue to support the medical center with the tax revenues.”

Baptist has agreed to open a clinic in Bismarck, Williams said, and to bring more doctors and specialists to the medical center.

“We hope that if Baptist Health comes here, we can offer OB services again,” she said. “We have not had regular services for giving birth since 2001. The emergency room is not set up for a birth, but when it happens, the doctors handle it just fine, but it is not what we are set up to do.”

The biggest aid Baptist Health could give the hospital is taking on the medical center’s debt.

“We saw the amount of unpaid medical services go up when the economy fell in 2008,” Williams said. “We have to write off about $400,000 to $500,000 a month in uncollectable debt.”

Campaign information listed $14.8 million in debt at the hospital caused by medical-care bills that go unpaid. Williams said she does not see the problem improving.

“We believe the hospital will see $12 million in Medicare cuts in the next 10 years,” she said. “We don’t feel Obamacare is going to help a lot.”

Williams is confident that Hot Spring County voters will support the tax extension at the ballot box.

“The community knows we have used their money wisely and that we need the hospital,” she said.

Results of the vote on the tax should be announced Aug 13.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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